Junk – Wall Street Smoke and Mirrors

The speculative investment of a Junk Bond yields high interest returns because of its extreme risk. While most bonds repay investment when they reach maturity, this one assumes its principal issuer may default. The bond is amalgamated debt by a company or municipality suffering financial troubles. One is betting the account will be repaid. Some issuers have plausible white knights, with others speculation is a wing and a prayer. This is my own definition. I wish to hell a good one was in the show’s program.

Steven Pasquale; Henry Stram and Rick Holmes

Junk is loosely based on the activities of financier Michael Miliken, “The Junk Bond King,” indicted in 1989 for racketeering, securities fraud, and insider trading. Much like the protagonist here, he took a plea bargain, was sentenced to two years, a $600 million dollar fine, and barred from the securities industry. (Note the word industry.) During his four year tenure as head of a bond department at Drexel Burnham Lambert, Miliken earned more than one billion dollars in compensation. Not everyone decried him. George Gilder, investor/economist wrote that the accused “… took the vast sums trapped in old-line businesses and put them back into the markets.”

Staged like a pinball machine, action begetting reaction begetting action, Junk is hard and fast. You may not understand every reason, move, or hazard, but overall impression of a vigilante mechanism operating outside established methods and stretched-to-the-limit laws is as clear and compelling as ego and aspiration.

Teresa Avia Lim and Michael Siberry

That roles are played with few specifics must, one conjectures, be a joint author/director decision. Both sides of the story are well realized and articulately justified. More definition might have skewed the piece away from a giant Rube Goldberg apparatus, but lack of color doesn’t damage proceedings, it just changes reaction from human involvement to abstract alarm.

Monomaniacal Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale, who is as fine in a dramatic role as in musicals) stands in for Miliken aided and abetted by attorney Raul Rivera (Matthew Saldivar) and the deal’s chosen one, deer in headlights Israel Peterman (a good Matthew Rauch).

On this side of the fence are conduits Boris Pronsky (palpably sweaty Joey Slotnick), Mark O’Hare (Ted Koch), and Devon Atkins (Nate Miller). Gullible (cliché) backer Murray Lefkowitz (Ethan Phillips) who gets himself further and further in over his head despite trepidation. And Merkin’s uber-smart spouse Amy (well-grounded Miriam Silverman) privy to everything going on with one fatal omission.

Matthew Saldivar and Ito Aghayere

Merkin is behind the scenes at the helm of the hostile takeover of a family-based, now diversified, steel company owned by third generation Thomas Everson Jr. (the earnestly credible Rick Holmes), whose foremost concern is his workers. Playing for his team is attorney Max Cizik (always solid Henry Stram), one of the few participants with integrity, and inevitable Merkin mole cliché, Jacqueline Blount (Ito Aghayere)

After an interview, potential white knight Leo Tresler (a terrific Michael Sidberry who looks like Raymond Massey and sounds like Warren Buffet) pursues and dates attractive, investigative journalist Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim – insufficient sizzle), who serves as connective wiring between the factions. Chen has an orgasm when she realizes not that the much older man has that much money, but that he made it himself. Like Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) in Paddy Chayesfky’s film Network, the turn-on is a talent for accruing and exerting power.

Joey Slotnick (center)

Director Doug Hughes does a crackerjack job with pacing; preciseness of gesture and expression. Focus is unequivocal; ambition and fear visceral.

At first glance, playwright Ayad Akhtar seems to have ventured far from his Pulitzer Prize winning Disgraced. The former is a jolting, dramatic turn where we relate to the foibles of distinctly drawn individuals whose history unexpectedly rises at odds with social environment. In Junk, characters seem to be merely cogs in an irrepressible, money-driven machine. Outlaw behavior is provoked by avarice creating opposed to restraint. In the end, both reflect history locking horns with social/economic change.

Matthew Rauch and Steven Pasquale

Films Wall Street (Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good”), Margin Call , and The Wolf of Wall Street (Jordan Belfort’s story) and Lucy Prebble’s show Enron, to name a few, ventured here before Akhtar. So why now? Perhaps because the practice continues unabated while our current national administration destroys safeguards.

The glossy Set by John Lee Beatty in perfect symbiosis with Lighting Design by Ben Stanton imagines two tiers of cubicles which light up and disappear as if internal circuitry. Action between these locations is decisive and often purposely once-removed. An apt metaphor – jarring to the audience, but when working at full optimization, creating a highly functional semblance of normalcy. Furniture for contained scenarios, slides in and out with efficiency.

Mark Bennett’s Sound Design is perfect, his intrusive underscoring, however, interfered.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

Opening: The ‘Board’

Lincoln Center Theater presents
Junk by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Doug Hughes
The Vivian Beaumont Theater
150 West 65th Street
Through January 7, 2018

About Alix Cohen (1686 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.